MONMOUTH -- Bringing soldiers home from the conflict in Iraq and overhauling the way Americans receive their health insurance were chief talking points during an open-forum hosted by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in Monmouth last weekend.
About 100 local residents and others from the Willamette Valley crowded into a conference room in the Monmouth Public Library on Saturday for the town hall meeting.
Wyden has held similar gatherings in every Oregon county annually since he was elected to office in 1996.
Topics ranged from global warming and illegal immigration to maintaining a ban on an internet use tax, though the war dominated much of the nearly two-hour meeting.
Audience members applauded Wyden's criticism of the current administration's handling of the war and overstatement of the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
Wyden also harpooned President Bush's desire to send more troops to the Middle East.
"It's Terrorism: 101," said Wyden, who supports a phased withdraw. "(If) you tip your hand that you're going to be there for a temporary time and then pull out ... the terrorists will just wait you out."
Wyden noted the price tag of the war is now more than $400 billion.
"Can you imagine what we could have accomplished in the last few years with that?" he asked.
Asked how the House and Senate could halt a major deployment, Wyden said "congress controls the power of the purse ... we may have to cut off funds for accounts without putting soldiers already there at risk."
Attendees like Louise Snyder of Dallas came to hear about efforts to reform the nation's health care system.
"I'm a senior citizen and I'm just a little upset," Snyder said. "It's a mess."
Wyden discussed his proposed legislation, the Healthy Americans Act. Per that plan, each state -- with some federal support -- would operate an agency to coordinate payments from employmers, individuals and the government.
Instead of paying insurance premiums, employers would pay workers higher wages, a portion of which would have to be dedicated to buying coverage from a pool of companies.
Wyden said competition would drive down costs. Previous and existing health problems, occupational hazards and other criteria would no longer affect eligibility or prices under his proposal, Wyden said.
"I don't think there's anything more important than health care," Wyden said. But "with exploding costs, increases in chronic illnesses ... health care is gobbling up everything (Americans' income) in sight."
Several audience members asked Wyden to address the country's energy policies. Developing a new energy source is a "national security issue," Wyden said.
"Dependence on foreign oil is a terror tax," he said. "A portion of what we pay at the pump gets into the coffers of oil-producing countries, who backdoor it to groups that support terrorism."
On question specifically referenced EPA proposed-legislation that would create a national standard to limit auto emissions of pollutants such as benzene.
Wyden said he opposes it in its current form because it might force Oregon to actually raise the allowable level of pollutants to bring the state in line with the rest of the country.
"Because of this national policy, Oregon would be penalized," he said. "We would essentially be a national sacrifice zone for this law."
Wyden said a "top priority" of the legislative session is to extend the lifespan of the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000, which gives rural counties funds made from federal timber sales.
Regarding illegal immigration, Wyden said secured borders and a willingness by the government to enforce laws already on the books are crucial to curbing the problem.
Any program to reduce the number of immigrants entering the United States, however, would have to acknowledge that the labor being done is ingrained in many industries, from farms to construction to restaurants and hotels.
"The program would have to acknowledge that economic reality," Wyden said. "There are people who go through the day ignoring that because it's convenient."